When 1993 Topps Finest Baseball debuted, it set off a storm. It was short in supply, used relatively new technology and introduced these things called Refractors. Maybe you've heard of them?
Over the years, the Topps Finest Baseball brand has gone under many changes. And with more chromium-based offerings than ever, many would argue the name doesn't carry as much clout as it once did.
Still, it's a hobby anchor. Not many brands can say they've been around for over 20 consecutive years like Topps Finest Baseball can.
1993 Topps Finest Baseball wasn't the first chromium-style set, but it was the one that launched it into the mainstream and later paved the way for other sports. Prior to the landmark MLB release, Topps used the brand earlier for a 1992 football box set. Also, 1992 Comic Images Unity, a Valiant Comics set, used chromium technology for a handful of inserts as well.
But 1993 Topps Finest Baseball brought it to the big-time, offering a new style of high-end cards. More important was the introduction of the Refractor parallel. The rainbow finish has since become one of the go-to inserts for not only Topps, but other companies as well (even if they're not technically called Refractors and are slightly different).
The set was ultra-hot immediately upon release. Collectors were scrambling and prices were very strong. Today, if you want a 1993 Topps Finest box, expect to pay $300 or more.
Over the next couple of years, not much changed for the Finest brand. The checklists were bigger and the designs a little different, but it was still a very straightforward concept. The biggest innovation, if you want to call it that, was the introduction of a plastic film used to protect the card fronts in 1995. The film could be left on, presumably to keep the surface pristine, or it could be peeled off. These stuck around through the end of the decade.
Going for Gold
In 1996, no doubt reacting to the soaring popularity of collectible card games and their tiered checklists, Topps Finest went through a major overhaul. The checklist was divided into several subsets. Within each there were bronze (common), silver (uncommon) and gold (rare) cards.
The base set and inserts had, in many ways, merged. Refractors remained, but there wasn't much in the way of inserts outside of them. The search for gold cards seemed to be enough.
1997 Topps Finest Baseball set another precedent with the introduction of a second type of Refractor. Embossed Refractors let Topps double-dip for the first time. In this day of player rainbows, it's nothing. But at the time, it was significant.
Not Their Finest Hour
The tiered structure was abandoned for 1998 Topps Finest Baseball and things went back to basics, at least for the base set. With Bowman Chrome and Topps Chrome now extremely popular as well, Finest had lost its way somewhat. It was no longer the powerhouse it was when it first launched.
Over the next several years, Topps tweaked with the format. Short prints, autographed rookie cards and a growing number of inserts were all added to the mix. Other than the autographs, none of it had much of a lasting impact. Despite its shiny look, Topps Finest Baseball was now caught in the shadows of some in-house competition.
Over the Rainbow
With the brand seemingly stuck in a rut, how did Topps Finest Baseball emerge from its slump? By embracing its identity even more. Every year it seems that a new type of Refractor is added to the mix, giving ROYGBIV a run for its money, complete with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Few will deny the beauty of the Refractor and a lot of collectors chase rarity. Topps Finest embraces both today. But so does Topps Chrome and Bowman Chrome. So how does Topps Finest stand out?
Its designs are bigger and distinct. Bowman Chrome and Topps Chrome are sort of like parallels themselves, borrowing from their parent brands. Finest, on the other hand, is a true standalone set.
In recent years, Topps Finest Baseball has taken on more rookie autograph content, countering Bowman's focus on prospects. Topps also tweaked the Finest configuration, opting for a mini box format. This allows more collectors to buy a handful of packs at a time and land some guaranteed hits without having to spring for a full hobby box.
Topps Finest Baseball might not generate the same widespread excitement as other chromium Topps brands. But, over time, it has carved out more of an identity for itself. This has enabled it to continue to be one of the hobby's go-to releases.
Marking the 24th edition, 2016 Topps Finest Baseball features much of the same attributes that have defined the brand for years. However, one element that made waves within the hobby has nothing to do with design. The product was switched from traditional distribution to a Topps online exclusive just a few weeks from the release date. Only time will tell how that will impact sales and if this will be the primary distribution method for the brand in the future.
Do you have any specific design favorites from Topps Finest Baseball? Let us know in the comments.
Topps Finest Baseball Through the Years
Here's a look at the various base card designs for Topps Finest Baseball between 1993 and 2016. Most images feature Refractor parallels. Please note that in 1996 and 1997, all base cards were divided into several distinct subsets. We've included them all in the gallery below.
Click on the images or listings to shop for cards from each year on eBay.
Original article by Ryan Cracknell.